Short Attention Span Review™
Slow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds
While Reynolds does an excellent job with the setup, the ending of Slow Bullets is not as satisfying as I would have liked. It's left too open to possibilities unrealized. It's a novella full of meaty character dynamics but is very sparse on descriptive narrative and world building. As it stands it only whets my appetite in an almost frustrating way about what could have been.
It’s no secret that I’m an Alastair Reynolds fan. His mixture of astrophysics, space opera, and gothic noir really scratches my space opera itch, especially his Revelation Space setting. All of his books, that I’ve read thus far, have been solid and entertaining works of science fiction. So when I saw that he was offering up a new novella in a new setting . . . boom, done deal, pre-ordered!
Slow Bullets does not take place in the Revelation Space universe, but it easily could fit into that setting with a few minor tweaks. But Reynolds chose a unique and vague setting for this work, probably because it might have been written sometime in his past and he didn’t feel the need to shoehorn it into his most popular universe.
Slow Bullets opens with the main character, Scur, describing her encounter with the twisted and sadistic war criminal Orvin. Despite the fact that their conflicting forces in an interstellar war have mutually agreed to, and signed, a peace treaty, he decides to hold her captive and torture her. Orvin injects Scur with a “slow bullet,” a tiny data module that is typically implanted into soldiers to hold information about their life history, their military/medical records, images of loved ones, etc. Think of them as sophisticated and futuristic dog tags embedded directly in the body. But this is a special and sinister bullet. The one planted in Scur is meant to cause pain and havoc on her body, slowly and painfully worming through her until it ultimately reaches hear heart and kills. There’s no real reason for Orvin to do this, other than to create prolonged pain, terror, and ultimately death in another human despite the fact they are no longer enemies. That’s just the kind of guy he is.
It’s a gruesome opening sequence, and sets a familiar Reynolds tone in a novel that never pulls its punches when it comes to depicting violence enacted upon another human. Scur attempts to cut the bullet out herself. Inevitably she blacks out in the process, and so begins the novel proper. The beginning sets in motion a revenge and survival narrative, with Scur promising violent retribution should she ever encounter her tormentor again.
Author: Alastair Reynolds
Genre: Science Fiction
Awards: 2016 Locus (best novella)
Media: Novella, paperback, 192 pages
Cover Art: Thomas Canty
Scur wakes up aboard a “skipship,” the Caprice, that’s been converted into a prisoner transport. The only problem is she doesn’t wake up after a simple hours long black out. She emerges from suspended animation along with a thousand other humans. Many of the passengers are civilian, yet most are prisoners of war from both sides of the interstellar conflict. Scur has no memory of how she came aboard the Caprice. More importantly, she has no idea why she would be considered and branded a war criminal. But that becomes the least of her worries. She soon discovers something went horribly wrong during the Caprice’s journey and that the passengers were not in hibernation for months . . . but perhaps decades . . . or centuries. They are drifting in deep space with no sign of civilizations anywhere. They are lost in the galaxy with no memories except the ones embedded in their bullets.
This is when her nemesis shows up. Orvin was also scooped up at war’s end and thrown aboard the same doomed skipship.
Faced with the possibility that these lost survivors of humanity are alone in the galaxy they set about preserving as much knowledge as they can. The ship is of little help as its memory systems are failing. So to prevent the prisoners of war from tearing each other to pieces because of moral, religious, and political divergences, Scur creates a tenuous truce and with the help of a few others convinces the passengers to set about preserving as much human knowledge as possible. They do this by transcribing all their known human information on surfaces of the ship by scratching or writing on the walls. By extension they also begin to scar and tattoo their own bodies.
There’s an interesting point to be made here. For those who keep the records, who make the choices of what to push forward, how is future history molded by the bias that’s embedded in the recording of past history? Religion (in the form “the Book”) is a central element to the discord that’s tearing the passengers apart, and what has caused historical violence in the past. Given the opportunity does that bias affect whether they pass the knowledge of religion forward to future generations when bound by the need of prioritized choice? Has this happened in humanity’s distant past? What history has been lost and forgot, never passed down, because someone made the choice not to do so, or there weren’t resources to do so at the time?
Also, Reynolds addresses the concept of the value of memories. When all you have left to hold on to, which is more valuable? Proliferating the knowledge of humanity, or preserving pieces of your lost memory . . . essentially your identity? This is the ultimate question that comes to bear when the Caprice’s memory begins to degrade and they need more storage media. The natural solution is to use the combined storage capacity of the thousand slow bullets embedded in every passenger. But this comes at the loss of all they have left to connect them back to a life and people hundreds of years in the past and who knows how many light years away, even if humanity still exists.
Finally, Scur must confront her own memories (in her head, not in a bullet) and her torture at the hands of Orvin. What kind of retribution does she bring down on him for something that happened centuries ago, but only days ago in her mind? I’ll leave that discovery up to the reader.
While Reynolds does an excellent job with the setup, the ending of Slow Bullets is not as satisfying as I would have liked. It’s left too open to possibilities unrealized. It’s a novella full of meaty character dynamics but is very sparse on descriptive narrative and world building. But those are common traits for stories less than 40,000 words. Slow Bullets could very well be turned into a full length novel, or be supplemented by a follow up novella to bring it to near novel length. But as it stands it only whets my appetite in an almost frustrating way about what could have been.
Slow Bullets was short listed for the Hugo award for best novella (which it did not win), and was the winner of a Locus award for best novella.